Hey guys! I am really pleased to feature my first guest post. Sean taught English in South Korea for three years which I think is awesome. He is now back in the States getting his MA. In this article, he delves into what it’s like for teaching assistants when they return home to their native country, more specifically for those who want to continue teaching. This is a topic I’ve noticed very few English teaching assistants mention after their teaching stint abroad is over. It’s not hard to figure out why–it can be a very confusing, very lonely period as you pick up the pieces of your life and try to figure out what comes next. I’ve been there and this is why I related to Sean’s post so well. I hope you find it as informative as I did! Take it away Sean!

Teaching in South Korea for three years didn’t help me get a job in the United States, but it made me a better teacher.

Like many would-be teachers who graduated during the recession, my job prospects were bleak. I didn’t feel confident that I could teach. All I learned from my education classes in college was that teaching really can’t be taught, or at least not through scrapbook projects that oversimplified pedagogy to a motif of foam apples pasted to a bound copy of sample lesson plans. Glitz got the grades, but not the substance.

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This held equally true in the classroom where I served as a student teacher. The students were only inclined to do what they needed to do to get the grade, and no amount of substance would  entice them into actual discussions. I didn’t know how to do it. I didn’t know if anyone was actually doing it, or if “teaching for the test” had left learning behind. I learned that I couldn’t stand terrified in the faces of unenthusiastic students every day, not sure if I was helping them with anything beyond the ability to repeat what I said. Nevertheless, it didn’t take me long to realize that I also couldn’t make minimum wage while reading Pedagogy of the Oppressed for fun on my parents’ couch.

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So I decided to follow a scribble I left in the margin of my notebook: “teach English. Korea.”  I took a TESOL course, which supplemented my undergrad education. In no time, I went and taught for three years, thinking that it would make my life richer and give me job skills and all of those other wonderful tricks recruiters use to market TEFL. Like others, I’ve written about my experience teaching abroad extensively.

What it’s like to come back, well, that story is more vague and either more general or more variable, depending on your source. Having to think on my feet with few resources in Korea made me a more confident teacher and armed me with skills in spontaneity and making real lesson plans and responding to student requests that I didn’t always understand. I knew I could motivate public high school students to articulate why they related to Holden Caulfield in ways that couldn’t be expressed on a multiple choice test. I gained the tools to help students identify the poetry of our grammar, to think of expression beyond a five-paragraph formula.

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The school district felt I could substitute teach for pennies until I procured my Master’s degree. Just like other teachers I’ve hunted down on web forums, even certain certification programs viewed my three years of experience as little more than a cute novelty. I was going to have to go back to school if I wanted to teach, and if I was going to get a coveted adjunct or public school position, I was looking at a life of struggle and poverty. Too often teachers are told that the opportunity to shape the minds of the next generation should be reward enough—we shouldn’t need monetary compensation when we’re wealthy with evidence of progress. I see the problem with this, yet I would much rather participate in giving people a better grasp of their language than actively participate in a value system that has allowed profit to silence innovation and expression.

I am currently pursuing my Master’s in Education, and so far, I can’t say that my program has taught me more than I learned in Korea. In fact, what I learned in Korea helped me to take charge of my education—in absence of resources, I found my own. I have a mentor who provides me with feedback that is deeper than grades. Still, I think teaching is something that is learned through action and reflection on that action, and when that doesn’t happen, we can’t know how we’ve progressed. If knowing that we’re facilitating progress is supposed to be our compensation as educators and we’re even lacking that, no wonder our classrooms lack substance. Maybe I’m naïve, but I hope that bringing my experiences to a teaching career will give me insight into how we can give teachers a better lesson in contemporary education.

Sean Lords lived in and taught in South Korea for three years.  Now, he’s writing and engaging on the topic of teaching abroad with Oxford Seminars, all while pursuing a Master’s degree in Education.

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